China’s tech regulatory goals are often in direct contradiction to what the rest of the world is trying to do. “Everything done in China has little or no control over the power of the most powerful data processor: the Chinese government,” said Jamie Susskind, a barrister specializing in data and technology at London-based law firm 11KBW. In China, officials will be watching Efforts are focused on regulating domestic tech companies. The broader technological shock has already caused Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma to withdraw from public life and is rumored to be behind ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming’s decision to step down as CEO.
Jack Ma’s dramatic ouster is typical of China’s regulatory approach. “When we start to get disillusioned with China’s enforcement model, we have forgotten the fact that regulation is not just supposed to control private companies,” Susskind said. “It should also limit the power of the state.” In China, this is rare. The challenge, Webster added, is to identify areas where China and the rest of the world share goals — and where China pursues goals that democracies would loathe.
Take, for example, the draft rules for synthetic media in China. The proposals, introduced in January, call for curbing the spread of deepfakes — a problem that plagues not just China but the world. According to the rules, anything that is “synthetic” cannot be generalized by an algorithm. Apps that promote deepfake content can face criminal prosecution and fines of up to 100,000 yuan ($15,000). However, China has been one of the main developers of deepfake technology, including the homegrown app Zao, which became popular in 2019.
But China’s latest wave of high-profile moves against big tech companies also suggests officials are playing catch-up to the rest of the world. Like many other countries, the country has over the years allowed the tech industry to flourish as a key driver of economic growth. As such, the sector is closely associated with the political elite. For example, Jack Ma of Alibaba has been a member of the Communist Party of China since the 1980s. This closeness has enabled some tech founders to lobby officials for preferential treatment. “China’s regulation used to be very lax,” Zhang said. “Recent enforcement has mostly been about restoring some balance between regulation and innovation.”
And, in some cases, Chinese policymakers are adopting Western ideas. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation inspired not only the California Consumer Privacy Act, but similar initiatives at home in China, including the country’s Personal Information Protection Law, which limits how much personal data private companies can collect . (Of course, the state can collect everything it wants.) Webster says the concept of watching what the world is doing and then devising solutions that work for China is not unique to tech companies. “That’s exactly how Chinese policymakers work: they actively compare other systems.”
Chinese regulators may have copied in part from elsewhere, but they are blazing their own path in finding ways to control the tech industry. And, with more regulation, it will only further divide the already divided internet.However, Webster believes there may be some lessons to be learned from what China is addressing, not how It’s working on it. “There are smart people trying to reshape China’s digital economy,” he said. “Although the political system is different, the job is not that different.”